Musings on Photography

Automated art

Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on December 8, 2009


Some time back at the beginning of November, everyone was all atwitter about how Google Streets will make photography obsolete. Why bother taking photos when it’s already been photographed by Google, the image is available on Google, etc.

I think that’s silly, and not just because of the obvious refutation that there are actually a lot of places Google Streets doesn’t cover, such as your kitchen table or your back yard or your bedroom closet.

But suppose we had an amazing array of cameras that reached everywhere and photographed everything, all the time. That is, we could, on demand, browse through a library of images and find one that was made at any spot on the planet at any given moment in history, with the camera pointed in whatever direction we chose. Would that make photography obsolete?

Well, it would certainly change things. But in essence, what it means is that we’ve replaced going out into the world and finding photographs with browsing through a computerized library and finding photographs. This is not quite the revolutionary change that everyone seems to think it would be.

Beyond that, though, it presupposes that the entire point to going out with a camera and making photographs is the end result – photographs. And, in the end, I just don’t think that any more.

Last night I had the good fortune to be at the awards ceremony for something called the Young Playwrights Program, which puts professional playwrights in classrooms so that they can teach kids to write plays. I think this is important. And I was pleased when playwright Paul Mullen took the time in his speech to tell the assembled throng of young playwrights that making plays matters. He told them that theatre is not just about mounting another production of a play written centuries ago by a guy who’s dead. It’s also about making new plays. He told them that when you write a play, something important happens, even if your play is never produced.

When you make photographs, something important and worthwhile happens, even if you never share the photographs you make. When you make photographs, something important and worthwhile happens, even if Google Streets has already made nearly identical photos of that spot. The important and worthwhile thing that happens is that you saw something, and you made a photograph of it. When you did this, you changed, inside. You are not the same person after making the photograph as you were before you made it. It’s a small change, yes, but little things are sometimes important things.

From Apshodel, That Greeny Flower, by William Carlos Williams

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

The Google Streets argument says that from a spectator’s point of view, there’s no meaningful difference between the photos you make, and the photos made by the automated camera on top of the Google van driving around. What the proponents of this argument are missing is that photography is not a spectator sport.

7 Responses

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  1. Gordon McGregor said, on December 8, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    I never did manage to just delete the shots without looking. Other than that, I tend to agree.

  2. Ed Richards said, on December 8, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    Plays are critical to remind people that what happens in jury trials has little to do with truth. A good play can make us see the truth. A great play can show us how little truth has to do with emotion.

  3. doonster said, on December 8, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    “What the proponents of this argument are missing is that photography is not a spectator sport.”

    And spectator sports would be nothing without teams taking to the field.

  4. Robert said, on December 8, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    I completely agreed with what P. Mullen said. Not too long ago I made myself take at least one photograph each and every day. The point of it all was not even about the end results, but the discipline and the simple dedication to oneself.

    And automation can never replace the human spirit.

  5. cataclog said, on December 8, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    I really appreciate what you said here. I sometimes feel it’s a waste of time for me to take so many pictures that never “go anywhere.” But then I enjoy the shooting whether I do more with the pictures or not. Occasionally, I also look back at some of my ignored files and find little gems.

  6. Walter McQuie said, on December 8, 2009 at 10:32 pm

    I agree with you sentiments Paul, but I think spectator sport isn’t such an inapt metaphor for photography. Some spectators are only interested in the athleticism of pro basketball–and being seen in their courtside seats–while others enjoy the competetive spirit of high school girl’s games. Moving to the other side of the lens, the amateurs frequently reap tremendous rewards from the process of training and performing, no high-powered career prospects necessary.

    The problem with automated art is lack of soul. A finely executed photographic image reveals something of the maker as well as the subject. Google Streets seems the tritest sort of tourist snaps compared to the revelations of genuine photographic vision.

    And don’t forget, the photograph is important–it’s the reward for the effort of getting out to see the world around you.

  7. Martin Budden said, on December 10, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    I’ve come to realize that what I enjoy is the process of making photographs, not the photographs themselves. When I go out with my camera I look at the world in a different way and see different things. When I have taken a photograph what is important is not that I have a nice photograph, but that I have seen something I probably otherwise would not have seen.

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